Northampton or Bath to end trophy drought in final

Fin Smith (left) and Finn Russell both standing on the pitch during a gameImage source, Rex Features

Image caption,

Fly-halves Fin Smith (left) and Finn Russell will face each other at Twickenham

Sophie Hurcom

BBC Sport England

Gallagher Premiership final: Northampton Saints v Bath

Venue: Twickenham Date: Saturday, 8 June Kick-off: 15:00 BST

Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Northampton, BBC Radio Bristol and BBC Radio Somerset (via FM, digital, BBC Sounds and online) with live text commentary and updates on the BBC Sport website

After finishing top of the table, Northampton are looking to win their first Premiership title in a decade when they take on Bath at Twickenham on Saturday.

The Saints have been the standard-bearers in English rugby this season, having led the way for almost the entire campaign and beat defending champions Saracens to reach the final.

However, they come up against a Bath side equally hungry for silverware, who ended the regular season level on points with Saints in second place.

Once the giants of English rugby, Bath’s wait for a trophy has been even longer with the six-times league winners last crowned champions in 1996.

Both have named unchanged sides from the semi-finals.

Lock Courtney Lawes starts for the final time for Saints, bringing to an end 17 years at Northampton, with Alex Waller, Lewis Ludlam and Alex Moon also playing their final games for the club.

Meanwhile Bath, with a fully-fit squad to choose from, have stuck with the side who beat Sale last weekend.

Full-back Matt Gallagher is making his final appearance for Bath, before departing for Italian side Benetton this summer.

England’s Smith v Scotland’s Russell

The Twickenham final will pit two fly-halves with similar first names against each other, when Saints’ young England talent Fin Smith comes up against Bath’s experienced Scotland international Finn Russell.

Both number 10 playmakers have been outstanding this season and their battle will have a big bearing on which team wins.

Smith has had a breakthrough season at Saints, scoring 252 club points, making his senior debut for England during the Six Nations and winning the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) Players’ Player of the Year award.

The 22-year-old has stepped up in the 18 months since Dan Biggar left for Toulon.

In the semi-final win against Saracens, he kept his cool to kick 17 points and ultimately give his side a two-point win.

“To think how young he is and the way he bosses boys around, regardless if it is Courtney Lawes or Alex Waller… he really does lead the squad,” scrum-half Alex Mitchell said.

“He has such a calm head on him for such a young lad. He’s been fantastic.

“He has shocked me in how good he has been in all aspects of the game, not just on the pitch but off it as well.”

Russell joining Bath at the start of this season was the biggest statement of intent in terms of head of rugby Johann van Graan’s hopes for the club.

The Scotland and British and Irish Lions international, 31, is the kind of marquee signing fans have been desperate for. His influence, game management, kicking ability and ball trickery have undoubtedly been a major part of Bath’s progression.

His half-back partnership with scrum-half Ben Spencer clicked instantly and has been at the centre of the team, pulling the strings in attack.

“He is an unbelievable rugby player,” Spencer said.

“There is a calmness about him, a class about him that just oozes throughout the team and he gives boys so much confidence and allows them to be themselves.

“I can’t speak highly enough of Finn. What he has added to this group this season has been unbelievable.

“You probably watch Finn’s highlights reel and you see the cross-field kicks and the big long passes, but underneath all that is a really strong defensive game as well.”

Saints the full package

Image source, Rex Features

Image caption,

Full-back George Furbank is one of a number of Saints players called back into the England squad this spring

The seeds for Northampton Saints’ storming season were being sewn as soon as the dust had settled on their semi-final defeat by Saracens last spring – their fourth loss at that stage since they won the title in 2014.

Lee Radford was brought over from rugby league as their new defence coach last summer and despite calling his appointment a “bit of a left-fielder”, the 45-year-old’s arrival has proved a masterstroke.

Only bottom of the table Newcastle conceded more tries than Northampton in 2022-23, while this year they gave away 158 fewer points.

Saints’ free-flowing attack has long been something to admire but this season it matched a more rounded performance.

They top the stats for most defenders beaten of the top four teams, the most carries and tackles made of the entire league and the second most metres made of any team.

They are also now reaping the benefit of years of developing their own players, with George Furbank, Alex Coles and Fraser Dingwall all coming through their academy to become key first-team fixtures.

Saints director of rugby Phil Dowson said the culture across the club has moved in the same direction with a key understanding of how they want to play.

“We talk about winning together and losing together, it’s a whole squad effort, it’s going to take different people to step up,” Dowson – who was part of the 2014 title-winning playing squad – told BBC Radio Northampton.

“We’re going to play our game, which we’ve always played. We’re going to be super-connected in defence because we have to be around their nine and 10.

“Our set-piece, we have to be on point, really tight five, maul defence has to be on point, we’re going to have to put our game on them from a scrum point of view.

“We want to put them under pressure in terms of how we attack, as always.

“We want to be out of the line making defenders make decisions and when we do that we generally put people into space.”

Bath’s two-year transformation

Image source, Rex Features

Image caption,

Bath have developed a winning mentality this season

It is hard to believe on this season’s showing that two years ago Bath finished the season bottom of the Premiership table.

The club’s transformation under 44-year-old South African Van Graan has been rapid. He has changed almost everything behind the scenes, bringing his own backroom staff and ripping up the systems playbook.

But it was far from a complete restart on the field.

Almost half of the senior players there two years ago remain, with Van Graan instead making a handful of canny signings, such as Russell, Ollie Lawrence, Ted Hill and South African prop Thomas du Toit and getting the best out of existing players.

Tellingly, there is now belief in the team too and a winning culture that was missing before.

This season marked Bath’s first top-four finish in four years and their first final appearance since 2015. The last time they won a trophy was the European Challenge Cup in 2008.

“One of the first things that I said is this… will eat you alive if you’re not always, always, always yourself – and people are themselves within this group, whether they are players or coaches or staff,” Van Graan told BBC Radio Bristol.

“I want people to have balance. It’s not only about the rugby it’s about being with your family, enjoying it with your friends.

“These are the reasons you play this game. It’s a first final for nine years at Bath Rugby so I want people to absolutely love what they’re doing.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Bath were the giants of English rugby. The club will hope their return to the final this weekend will begin another winning dynasty.

Team line-ups

Northampton: Furbank; Freeman, Odendaal, Dingwall, Sleightholme; Smith, Mitchell; Waller, Langdon, Davison, Moon, Coles, Lawes (c), Pearson, Augustus.

Replacements: Matavesi, Iyogun, Mills, Mayanavanua, Graham, Ludlam, James, Hendy.

Bath: Gallagher; Cokanasiga, Lawrence, Redpath, Muir; Russell, Spencer (c); Obano, Dunn, Du Toit, Roux, Ewels, Hill, Underhill, Barbeary.

Replacements: Annett, Schoeman, Stuart, Stooke, Bayliss, Schreuder, Bailey, Reid.

Referee: Christophe Ridley

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